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Konkret - May 01, 2007

A Typical Story

WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH THE JEWISH THEATER IN VIENNA’S NESTROYHOF?

By Erwin Riess

Once upon a time, there was a talented young man from New York. In the 80s and early 90s of the previous century, he studied literature and theater, performed with independent theater groups and ultimately dared to write his own plays, which were received with positive interest. The young man could have succeeded in New York. But things were to work out differently. Friends invited him to come to a tiny land in Europe, forgotten in modern times, with its high mountains, its overabundance of troubled history, and strange inhabitants who are so proud of their country that they would like nothing better than to have it all to themselves. But since they have to live from something, and only the fewest among them will condescend to venture into modern business, these patriotic denizens sell out their land in small portions to outsiders who, to the extent that they’re able to pay, are permitted to bear the title of “tourists”. In this way, the coffers of the domestic trustees are filled with money so they may calmly continue to chase the rocking horse of selfless disrepute.

The young man from New York went to Austria. There he spent an uneventful time on a farm in the remarkably beautiful, remarkably singular, remarkably history-conscious Carinthia – helping the farmers in the fields and nourishing himself on the tasty products of the incomparable countryside. It could have gone on a few more days like this until Warren – as the young man from New York was known – had flown off again to America, taking fond memories of the old continent with him.

That was not meant to be. The idyll ended abruptly – and it was our young man from New York who was to blame. Warren had made a fateful error. He had written letters to his American friends. The error was to swell into an unforgivable affront as Warren promptly received a reply at his Carinthian holiday address.

As is standard in Austria, the Carinthian farmers examined the mail of their guest and made an appalling discovery. The congenial farmhand, Warren, had an unthinkable family name: Rosenzweig. So much for comfort and hospitality; it was time to engage the ever-vigilant Carinthian defense against the modern, and with a vengeance. An East Coast American Jew in the mountains of the homeland – that was impermissible. After decades of strenuous battle to finally subdue the local Slovenes, now foreign-blooded agents were penetrating the farms. The impertinent Jew was planting the seeds of sacrilege. A shame and a disgrace, Warren Rosenzweig had to be hunted from the farm.

And now our young man committed an even more fateful error: Instead of hightailing out of the country and avoiding it for the rest of his days, he took a trip to Vienna. There he encountered a most curious phenomenon: Viennese “cultural life”. His immune system had already been decisively enervated when the last bastion of the distressed young New Yorker fell – that is, he fell in love with an Austrian.

Since these events in the late 90s, the life of the promising young man took a dramatic turn. He founded a Jewish theater that now has a small, permanent venue (a tiny room called “The Window”) that receives hardly any support from the government and little media attention. Not satisfied with this, Warren Rosenzweig and his comrades-in-arms set upon a determined battle for the restoration and revitalization of the previously destroyed Jewish theater in the Praterstrasse. This street, with its dozens of entertainment halls and theaters, was once considered the Broadway of Vienna. The Carl Theater of Johann Nepomuk Nestroy had been located directly across the street from the Jewish theater built by Oskar Marmorek, among the most outstanding architects of the Fin de siècle period. Marmorek’s Jugendstil palace had been given the name “Nestroyhof” to commemorate the memory of Nestroy. Warren Rosenzwieg, the young man from New York, had initiated a battle for the reopening of the Jewish theater in the Nestroyhof.

Until 1938, Vienna had a multi-faceted Jewish theater scene in which the Juedische Kuenstlerspiele in the Nestroyhof had held an eminent position. Jacob Goldfliess founded the theater in 1927 and was its artistic director until he was forced to flee in 1938. Through his productions, he was responsible for familiarizing tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Eastern villages and towns with modern themes while, at the same time, he saw to it that the heritage of assimilated Viennese Jewry would not be forgotten. Escape from the Nazis led Jacob Goldfliess to Southern France, only to be incarcerated in the camps of Vernet and Des Milles for eleven months in 1941. He managed to escape again, however, in 1942 – this time to New York. His son, Sanford Goldfless, is today among the key supporters of the “Nestroyhof Initiative” of Warren Rosenzweig.

As the young man from New York grew interested in the former Jewish theater, he came up against a prominent Austrian industrial family – and a typical Austrian story.

Once upon a time, there were five brothers from the southern basin of Vienna who had been born in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The brothers began early on in the milling and animal feed industries and established a network of companies that sill exist even today and that have long been active in Hungary as well. In the 1930s, the Polsterer brothers supported the Austro-fascists, but then resolved to support the Nazis, so that soon after the arrival of the Wehrmacht, all were either full Party members or members of NS forefield organizations. The brothers took a particularly strong liking for the acquisition and exploitation of Jewish real estate and before long their efforts began to pay off. Although individual Nazi authorities had warned against treating the brothers to all too much Jewish fortune – since they were more concerned with war profiteering than devoting themselves to the Party – still, by the end of the war, the Polsterer real estate holdings had expanded to include, among other things, the Nestroyhof with its Jewish theater.

During the years of dictatorship and war, the adaptable brothers had succeeded brilliantly in business, so why should anything be different in the democracy imposed [after the war] by the Allies? The Polsterers made sure to benefit from the rebuilding of the Republic. At a time when flour was more valuable than gold (parts of the population of the cities were starving during the postwar period), their milling complex was a leading industry. They also had their animal feed and machine factories, chartered airlines, and a major daily newspaper – in 1955, Rudolf Polsterer acquired the [first postwar] daily paper, the “Kurier”. For the position of Editor-in-Chief, he engaged the most renown postwar journalist in Austria, the now 80-year-old Hugo Portisch,* who would not only go on to become chief news commentator for ORF [state-owned television] for decades, but would also be famous for his monumental television documentaries about the First and Second Republics and the dominance of National Socialism in the Austrian historical picture.

On behalf of its inheritors, the Nestroyhof is currently managed by a Polsterer family scion. The architecturally significant Jewish theater, which housed a supermarket until recent years, is now empty. [In] 2004, the scion of the family and Warren Rosenzweig attempted to work together to bring the theater back to life. But then differences developed that gradually led to lawsuits and nasty public disputes. The interests were just too dissimilar: On the one side, there was the inheritor of the Aryanizers, who may not have been opposed to a Jewish theater providing it would be profitable; on the other side, the poor devil from New York, whose only thought was to reinstate an old tradition of Jewish theater life in Vienna – and without the influential authority of the present owners.

The federal office for landmark protection evaluates the worthiness of preserving the theater; the Cultural Councilor [Kulturstadtrat] of Vienna considers the financial viability of an additional mid-sized stage; the Federal President of the Republic gives his Honorary Patronage for the Jewish theater week** and associated congress organized by Rosenzweig’s theater initiative (1). All the ingredients, therefore, for further political procrastination are available.

During the theater festival [“Tikun Olam”], performances were also given on the [Jewish Theater of Austria’s] mini-stage in Vienna’s 7th District, with space for only [some] twenty spectators. There was a staged reading from Warren Rosenzweig’s epic play “Die Judenstadt”. (2) On the same street, diagonally opposite [The Window], is the home of the German Nationalist fraternity “Sudetia”. In the immediate vicinity, there is a stately house that, until 1938, was owned by a religious Jew. Like so many thousands of other properties, it too was stolen and “Aryanized” during the time of the Nazis. The owners are part of a prominent Austrian industrial family that made a fortune in the milling and foodstuff industries in the southern basin of Vienna.

* It is no exaggeration to describe this man as a cross between Guido Knopp, Theo Sommer, and Rudolf Augstein. [Konkret]

** The “Tikun Olam” festival program ranged from a performance by renown singer Theodore Bikel & Tamara Brooks to groups from St. Petersburg und Prague (Teatr Novogo Fronta), Tel Aviv (Nepesh Theater, Yossi Vassa), Moscow (LaboraToria, Boris Uhananov), and Buenos Aires, to plays by Ari Roth (Washington, D.C.), Austrian artists and groups such as Hans Breuer or Eva Brenner’s Projekttheater, which presented a Robert Blum performance with Sun Sun Yap (Singapore/Vienna). [The congress,] which was co-organized by the Association for Jewish Theatre, is given in a different city each year – this time in Vienna, following [recent conferences in] Washington, D.C. and Phoenix, Arizona. [Festival and congress] performances and talks concerning international Jewish theater were given at venues all around the city. [Konkret]

(1) The honorary patronage (Ehrenschutz) of President Heinz Fischer was for the opening of the International Congress of the Association for Jewish Theater hosted by the Jewish Theater of Austria on March 20, 2007.

(2) During the Tikun Olam Festival, the reading from “Die Judenstadt” was not held at The Window in the 7th District, but at the Votivkirche in the 9th District. [JTA]

Copyright © 2007 Konkret

(trans.: JTA)
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